We call it the outback – the 70% of Australia that is geographically described as desert. A couple of generations ago Hans Heyson painted it and the mass produced prints took pride of place on lounge room walls. Grey nomads trundle their caravans across it, writers and film makers have hung it with their stories and we write Uluru and Kakadu on our bucket lists. But we don’t live there. Instead we cluster around the blue and green rim of this vast island we live in.
We seem to have inherited an image of God that is something like a desert – big, distant, awesome, beyond, fearsome. Maybe it goes back to the early days of settlement, to people homesick for the tidy green landscapes of Britain, accosted by the untidiness and dryness of the Australian bush. They struggled to survive. They died trying to cross deserts. They wondered where God was in this alien landscape.
I experience a push and pull about the Australian desert outback. It draws me, fascinates me, and at the same time I reject its appeal. I’ve looked at desert places like Kakadu from the safety of a bus and viewed Australian’s vast openness from the window of a plane. I see it for what I think it is – sometimes stony, sometimes sandy, hot, occasionally a vivid red, speckled with small dusty shrubs and trees that have spent their lives leaning into the wind.
I don’t want to live there and I’m not even sure that I would welcome the opportunity to camp there, but at the same time that possibility excites me. Maybe that’s the lure of the desert and there’s something romantic, even seductive, about being lured to a place that is so unfamiliar, so far out of my comfort zone.
Hosea knew the allure, the push/pull of the desert, when he put these words into God’s mouth. “I am going to lure her and lead her out into the wilderness and speak to her heart.”(Hos:2 16) Often, in spite of knowing better, we settle for a distant God instead of letting God play the seducer? It’s only when we are adult enough to leave behind fearful childhood images of God that we can cope with a God who is tender and seductive.
The invitation of the desert is subtle. It may be awesome and it can be dangerous, but it taps into the God-pull that hides deep in the recesses of our being. God hides there, longing for us, waiting for us to come looking.
While we may be drawn to a desert landscape with its mostly unpeopled space and accompanying silence, most of us lack regular access to one. Popular Australian activities like surfing, fishing, gardening and bushwalking might suit our climate, but they also mirror the aloneness of our vast desert landscapes. We feel the pull to stay there. Sometimes experience its mystical quality. Such times invariably put us in touch with the lonely, empty spaces we carry inside us. . . the spaces where God waits .